#Wellbeing: understanding stress
Stress is the response of our body to a (real or imaginary) threat that we believe we cannot handle. When we get stressed our body releases stress hormones, which result in an increased heart rate and blood pressure, faster breathing and higher alertness. Our body prepares us for a ‘fight or flight’ response, so we can either fight the danger or flee from it.
Stress is a natural response that can be triggered from a variety of events, from a class presentation to a life-threatening situation. It can affect every aspect of our life and can lead to problems with sleep, eating and concentration. Some signs of stress include digestion problems, overthinking, lack of libido, short temper, often feeling sad or lonely, eating and sleeping too much or too little and difficulty focusing. Several studies have reported high levels of stress amongst university students, due to exams, coursework deadlines and other responsibilities.
Stress can be both good and bad for us
A little bit of stress can actually be good for us. It can make us feel alive and excited, prepare us for a dangerous situation, make us more resilient, motivate us to do better, improve our memory and even boost our immune system.
When stress is prolonged (chronic stress), it can weaken our immune system, interfere with sleep, make us gain weight, lead to premature ageing as well as premature death. Chronic stress has also been linked to illnesses such as cancer, heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease, asthma, gastrointestinal problems, diabetes, gum disease, as well as mental health disorders, such as depression and anxiety.
How to manage stress?
Given the negative physical and mental impact of stress, it is important to introduce some stress reduction techniques in our everyday life to better manage stress.
It is important to find ways to express our thoughts and feelings. Ignoring our problems will only contribute to more stress. It is very helpful to talk to someone (e.g. friend, parent, tutor). Another effective strategy is to write about our emotions in a personal journal, which also allows us to organise our thoughts. Other ways to express our feelings include drawing, painting, colouring, singing, dancing and poetry.
Time management is essential to avoid stress before exams and coursework deadlines. Splitting our revision and coursework over smaller parts throughout a longer period of time will reduce stress, compared to doing most of the studying at the last minute. It is also important to maintain a good balance between university responsibilities and personal time. Making more time for leisure activities will make us feel happier and more joyful.
Physical activity has multiple benefits for both our physical and mental health. When it comes to exercise there are so many options. There are many gyms in the city and the university has several sports clubs. Even going for a walk outside can have benefits to your health, as it offers a change of scenery which may help you better process your thoughts. Yoga is also known to provide relaxation benefits through movement, meditation and breathing.
Taking care of ourselves by developing healthy habits can shield us from stress. Our diet affects our mood and well-being and eating a healthy diet, such as plenty of fruit, vegetables, whole grains, oily fish, nuts, seeds, legumes, healthy fats etc. while avoiding added sugar, refined grains and oils, trans fats and processed meat will improve our overall health. Another healthy habit is to ensure we get enough hours of good sleep during the night to feel more energetic and concentrated during lectures and revision. It might also be worth cutting down on drinking alcohol, spending a lot of time on social media and consuming a lot of caffeine.
Incorporating relaxation techniques in our daily life can reduce chronic stress and make us feel calmer. Breathing techniques, such as diaphragmatic and deep breathing will make you feel a greater sense of relaxation. Other techniques include progressive relaxation (relaxing tense muscles), meditation, guided imagery (imagining a peaceful place) and self-massage.
- Using positive thinking can reduce stress. It is beneficial to let go of unhelpful habits such as focusing on the negative side of things, taking things very seriously or personally, not letting go of the things we cannot control and underestimating our abilities. Instead, we can focus more on positive thinking such as being kind to ourselves, surrounding ourselves with positive people, using humour and being grateful.
How to Stop Worrying and Start Living (by Dale Carnegie)
Relaxation for Dummies (by Shamash Alidina)
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